We often think of video games as a timeless medium. Players with a love for retro gaming can still dust off an NES, blow in the bottom of a Super Mario Bros. cartridge, and experience the game the way it was played 25 years ago. Over the past few years, the video game industry has undergone an online revolution, opening up exciting new avenues for interaction and distribution. At the same time, these changes have introduced some troubling restrictions that impact the longevity of the games you buy. The day you can’t play your favorite modern game may be coming sooner than you think.

This article originally appeared in issue 227 of Game Informer.

The Authentic(ated) Experience
Anyone who’s played a game in the past two years is aware of a pack-in many games come equipped with nowadays: The online pass code. Whether you’re unlocking a frivolous new costume, a handful of bonus maps, or the game’s entire multiplayer component, some part of your new experience is likely tied to authenticating your copy via some online service. Gamers without Internet access have suffered without this bonus content for some time now, but even for online gamers these extras will be available only for as long as Microsoft and Sony provide service for their systems. Once that is gone, that content (if it’s not already loaded on your console) will be gone forever. We won’t cry if that means losing access to our horse armor in Oblivion a few years from now, but some missing content will prove more detrimental to the overall experience. Late last year, Rocksteady was criticized for locking the Catwoman chapters of Batman: Arkham City, which intertwine with the Caped Crusader’s own narrative, behind a hefty DLC download. Ultimately, players who buy the game new and have access to the Internet don’t think much about the inconvenience of downloading the extra content. But once Xbox Live and PSN support are no longer offered for the 360 and PS3, a piece of Arkham City’s adventure will be permanently lost. 

When The Servers Are Severed
Gamers tend to think of multiplayer-oriented games as offering endless replayability, but due to the costs associated with maintaining servers for online play, multiplayer is oftentimes the first aspect of a game to get the axe. Late last year, BioWare launched its highly anticipated MMO The Old Republic, offering players the chance to explore a new take on the Star Wars universe. Five days earlier, however, another MMO based on the hit sci-fi IP, Star Wars Galaxies, shut off its servers. For eight years the game offered a home to a dedicated group of players, which may sound like a long time. But the ending of Star Wars Galaxies is absolute – players no longer have the ability to go back to the game for a stroll down memory lane or to catch up with friends. The doors are closed.

Social games aren’t impervious to getting the axe, either. Late last year, EA PopCap announced its plans to shut down the Facebook game Baking Life at the end of January, despite an average daily player count of 100,000 users. Adding insult to injury, the game’s developer announced that any outstanding virtual currency (Zip Cash) players have cannot be refunded or transferred to the company’s other titles.

It’s not just PC players who must worry about having the plug pulled on their favorite online game. Console games featuring dedicated server-based multiplayer are just as susceptible to being rendered unplayable by discontinued support, which sometimes comes sooner than you think. Last year, 2K Sports shut down NBA 2K11’s multiplayer servers in mid-November, after just 13 months of support. Players were encouraged to “upgrade” to NBA 2K12, but the newest iteration in the series doesn’t have My Crew or the traditional Online Leagues, leaving fans of those modes high and dry.

The multiplayer servers for Demon’s Souls have been on the chopping block several times as well. Originally Atlus planned to discontinue the multiplayer servers in March of 2011, but the shut-off date was then delayed until fall of the same year. Fans are now riding another stay of execution until an unnamed time in 2012, but sooner or later a facet of Demon’s Souls’ innovative blend of multiplayer and single-player will be gone for good.